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Friday, September 10, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q & A -- Waco Controversy Is Back; Here's Why

AP

WASHINGTON - The FBI's grudging acknowledgment that it was less than candid about its role in the final hours of the 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Texas, has raised new questions and prompted another investigation into the tragic events of April 19, 1993.

Here is a look at some of the issues:

Q: Why is Waco back on the national agenda?

A: Because of recent news reports that the FBI did, in fact, use potentially incendiary tear gas on that final day, despite six years of FBI and Justice Department statements to the contrary. In recent weeks, FBI and Justice officials have been in the awkward position of having to disavow years of contradictory statements to Congress and the public about the FBI Hostage Rescue Team's use of tear gas in the hours before the Davidians' compound erupted in flames.

Q: What are government officials saying now, compared with what they said then?

A: On Aug. 25, the FBI acknowledged that a "very limited number" of military pyrotechnic CS gas canisters were fired at a concrete shelter adjacent to the Davidians' wooden compound.

That stands in sharp contrast to earlier public statements. Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee less than two weeks after the standoff ended, Attorney General Janet Reno said that based on the briefings she had been given, "It was my understanding that the tear gas produced no risk of fire."

In its October 1993 report documenting the final assault, the Justice Department made no mention of pyrotechnic devices. In fact, the Justice report stated, "The gas delivery systems the FBI used were completely nonincendiary."

Some former senior FBI officials who played key roles during the standoff, including the FBI's former Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson and chief Waco spokesman Bob Ricks, say they were unaware until recently that potentially combustible devices were used.

Q: Cover-up or bureaucratic slip-up?

A: That's the question for several congressional committees that are investigating the FBI's belated about-face, and for former Sen. John Danforth, whom Reno named to lead an independent investigation.

"My job is to answer the dark question or the dark questions: Was there a cover-up?" Danforth said yesterday. "That's a dark question. Did the government kill people? . . . How did the fire start?"

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Reform Committee also are investigating, in preparation for fall hearings.

Q: What roles did Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh play?

A: The standoff was under way when Reno took office, and she had been on the job less than five weeks when she approved the FBI's proposal to use tear gas to flush out the Davidians and break the siege. Reno, who has said she made clear to the FBI her concern that nothing be used that could ignite a fire, is coming under increasing attack on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on Wednesday became the highest-ranking congressional leader to call for her resignation over the escalating controversy. Freeh, who didn't take the helm of the FBI until four months after the standoff ended, has escaped much of the criticism.

Q: Why did this come to light now?

A: Because of inquiries by documentary filmmakers, reporters and lawyers for surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of the dead who are going to court next month in their longstanding lawsuit claiming that the government was responsible for the deaths. Use of the potentially incendiary tear gas was first reported by The Dallas Morning News on Aug. 24, triggering the latest controversy over Waco.

Q: How did the standoff begin?

A: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted on Feb. 28 to execute warrants for suspected firearms violations, triggering a deadly gunbattle with heavily armed Davidians who had been tipped off about the raid. Four ATF agents and several Davidians died in the gunfire, and more than 16 other ATF agents were wounded. The FBI quickly took control of the operation after the botched raid.

Q: How many people died on the siege's final day?

A: Davidian leader David Koresh and about 80 followers died in the final day's inferno, some from gunshot wounds, others from the fire. Flames had so damaged the bodies that coroners never established an exact count of the dead.

Q: Who caused the fire?

A: Reno and FBI officials say there is no evidence that the fire was caused by the pyrotechnic canisters. Aerial infrared tapes newly turned over by the FBI capture a radio transmission at 8:08 a.m. in which an unnamed agent says the military rounds bounced off the concrete structure, which was 40 yards from the main wooden compound. Independent arson investigators determined that the fire, which began at 12:07 p.m., was started inside the compound in three different locations simultaneously.

"That fire was set by David Koresh and the people in that building," Reno said. The surviving Davidians disagree. In their lawsuit, they contend that the blaze was ignited by the tear-gas canisters.

Q: What types of tear gas were used?

A: Two types of nonincendiary tear gas and the newly revealed military pyrotechnic rounds. The nonincendiary tear gas was inserted in one of two ways: either by Combat Engineering Vehicles that used their booms to punch holes into the compound's walls or by Bradley Fighting Vehicles that fired noncombustible "Ferret" rounds that shattered on impact. The military M651 canisters, which burn for about 30 seconds to heat and release the tear gas inside, were fired from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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